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Travel, Teach, Live in Japan

Religion In Japan
By:Jim Sherard

Religion in Japan more than a specific set of beliefs or doctrines practiced on a daily basis, is a blend of traditions that stem from the early teachings of Shintoism and Buddhism, and which most Japanese have incorporated into rituals and customs that are applied on special occasions, such as visiting a Shinto shrine to mark the birth of a new baby, or attending wedding ceremonies performed by Shinto priests. Buddhism also plays a large role in this religious heritage, in that most funerals in Japan are overseen by Buddhist priests, who in addition to their specific duties at the ceremony perform an ongoing series of rites on death day anniversaries of deceased family members. Many of the festivals in Japan known as Matsuri are also chiefly of Shinto origin, and are often symbolic ceremonies representing the cultivation of rice and the spiritual well being of the community. Matsuri are popular events that are usually associated with Shinto Shrines, and are held annually over the course of several days. One of the key features are processions in which the local Kami (Shinto Deity) is carried through the streets on a portable shrine called a Mikoshi, often accompanied by drum and flute music. Every local festival has it's own unique characteristics, but most tend to be noisy, energetic occasions that offers the community an opportunity to come together in joyful celebration. Although most holidays in Japan are secular in nature, News Year's Day is marked by family traditions that are based in Shintoism, such as the consumption of special food, and visiting various Shrines throughout the day with family members to pray for blessing in the upcoming year. Bon Festival (Obon) in mid August is another well known event for Buddhists which marks the annual visit of ancestors to the earthly plane, and involves frequent visits to Buddhist Temples. Family altars are decorated with special spirit emblems, and ancestral graves are cleaned in anticipation of the return of the souls of family members since departed. Many people also return to their home towns to visit relatives, and to participate in celebrations such as folk dancing and prayers at local Buddhist temples.

The origin of the Shinto religion is for the most part uncertain, but some scholars ascertain it emerged thousands of years ago as a cultural extension of immigrants from China, who upon arriving introduced agricultural rites and shamanic ceremonies which invariably took on Japanese characteristics in the new environment. The word Shinto means “the way of the gods”, and proclaims no specific founder or sacred scriptures. The basic premise of the religion is that sacred spirits known as Kami take the form of objects and concepts significant to life, such as mountains, trees, wind, rain, rivers, and fertility. Human beings are capable of becoming Kami after they die, and the Kami of extraordinary people are sometimes enshrined as a show of respect. In contrast to many of the worlds monotheist religions, Shintoism does not profess to a set form of beliefs. The world is seen as being composed of various shades of gray, with no absolute forms of right and wrong. Humans are regarded as being fundamentally good, and immoral behavior is believed to be caused by evil spirits which must be kept at bay by Shinto rituals, prayers, and offerings to the Kami. The arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century exerted profound influence on Japan's social, intellectual, artistic, and political life, and as a result Shinto temporarily fell out of favor. Fortunately the two religions were soon able to co-exist harmoniously, with many Buddhists viewing the Kami as manifestations of Buddhas.

In addition to Shinto and Buddhism, Japan was introduced to Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries with the arrival of European traders and Jesuit missionaries, resulting in the conversion of thousands of Japanese to Roman Catholicism. In 1549 a Jesuit priest by the name of John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima from Spain with hopes of bringing Christianity to Japan. Thinking they would reduce the influence of the powerful Buddhist monks, the Shogunate initially supported the Christian movement, but as sentiment changed in the years to follow Christianity was banned by the government, and those who refused to abandon their new faith were killed. Christianity is currently practiced by
approximately 1.3 million people in Japan. Although it represents only a small fraction of the population, Christmas is widely observed, though in a mainly secularized form. Christian organizations have also left their influence by founding well known educational institutions such as as Kwansei Gakuin University, International University, and Sophia University.

Jim Sherard is the author of "Land of the Rising Sun, A Guide to Living and Working in Japan", which can be found at: www.escapeartist.com/e_Books/Living_and_Working_in_Japan/Living_and_Working_in_Japan.html

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